Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on February 4, 2011 with permission of the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts. It was written in conjunction with the exhibit Keepsakes of the Beloved: Portrait Miniatures and Profiles 1790 to 1840, on view January 8 - April 17, 2011 at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay and other source material, please contact the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts directly through either this phone number or web address:
Keepsakes of the Beloved: Portrait Miniatures and Profiles 1790 to 1840
By Elizabeth Johns
English caricaturist Max Beerbohm (1872-1956) was certainly right about portraits. "Keepsakes of the Beloved: Portrait Miniatures and Profiles" supports his wit, if not his cynicism. Before the invention of photography, portrait painting kept artists in business, especially among the citizens of America, who were eager to establish a record of their persons and responsibilities. American painters produced many bust or full-sized oil portraits that were richly framed, calculated for display in a comfortable home or even in public.
In contrast, most of the portraits in this exhibition are quite small -- painted miniatures and cut profiles or silhouettes. Certainly flattering according to the conventions of the period, they were for private rather than public use, as keepsakes of a special moment or person -- a lover, a wedding, a child, a spouse, even a memorial to one who had died. Typically women wore the miniatures as lockets and men tucked them in their pockets to have the images close by. Over the generations, many families framed their ancestors' miniatures and displayed them in special places in the home. Cut profiles or silhouettes, simpler and less expensive, were often placed in family Bibles and framed later. After several generations, all became part of history, detached from the original families and given to museums or sold to collectors.
Miniature paintings got their start in the sixteenth century in northern Europe when artists learned to paint on a very small scale in order to broaden their market for portraits. For two centuries, they painted on vellum (animal skin scraped thin and smooth). By the eighteenth century, miniaturists worked on small oval chips of ivory or on paper card, and American painters learned the technique. Using very fine brushes to apply watercolor, they backed the ivory with white paper to heighten the effect of light radiating from the portrait. Typically they enclosed the miniature in a convex glass cover and sometimes also mounted it in a case.
This exhibition features such works, most by American artists and most from the years 1790 to 1840. The exhibition also includes two full-size oil portraits to indicate the choices that clients could make before photography transformed the market. Later in the century, the miniature experienced a revival, with artists typically relying on daguerreotypes rather than sittings, and a few objects in the show date from the 1880s.
One of the most active families in portrait-making in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was that of Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827). Peale studied in England and returned to the Colonies in 1769, settling in Annapolis and then in Philadelphia. There he taught family members his techniques and, with them, "divided up" the market. Eventually, children of both Charles Willson Peale and James Peale (1749-1831), his brother, were prominent in the portrait market in the mid-Atlantic states, some traveling as far south as Charleston, South Carolina.
Charles Willson Peale's son, Raphaelle Peale (1774-1825), specialized in miniatures and still life. His Portrait of Anthony Slater, circa 1814 [Figure 1], is typical of his skill on a small scale. Slater was born in England in 1779, but moved to Philadelphia to become a major importer and wholesaler, and probably ordered the miniature in celebration of his business success. Peale backed the ivory with a piece of silver to prevent light spilling in from the back and interrupting his delicate handling. A square gilded frame, possibly from the 1920s, encloses the miniature.
The exhibition also presents several works by James Peale's daughter, Anna Claypoole Peale (1791-1878). Trained by her father, who had agreed to paint miniatures while his brother Charles Willson painted full-size works, she was hugely successful as a miniaturist. Her A Lady, 1825 [on cover], and Portraits of Obadiah Brown and Elizabeth Brown, 1819, of Washington, D. C. reveal the reasons for her popularity: she painted her sitters' costumes and features in close detail and used saturated colors that resembled the brilliance of oil. A counterpart in New England was Sarah Goodridge (1788-1853), who although self-taught, was so successful in her Boston studio that she supported not only herself but several relatives. Goodridge's portraits of clergyman James Trask Woodbury and his wife Augusta Porter Woodbury, 1828, typify her talented grasp of detail and character [Figures 2 and 3].
In the last several decades, both miniatures and silhouettes, the names of whose sitters and artists have been lost, have come into public and private collections. One such work, a very fine one, is an unidentified artist's miniature of Major Samuel Ringgold, 1820s [figure 4]. Ringgold (1796-1846) was the son of Samuel Ringgold (1770-1829), a Maryland congressman, and his wife Maria Cadwalader; their home, "Fountain Rock," stood near the present location of St. James School south of Hagerstown. A graduate of the first class at West Point in 1818, Ringgold, the sitter, went on to conduct research on military saddles and light artillery, which led to his promotion to Major in 1845. This miniature, cased in red Moroccan leather, may mark that promotion, or perhaps it celebrates his graduation and the rank of "major" was Ringgold's or his family's addition. Ringgold distinguished himself in the Mexican-American War, during which he suffered a mortal wound. This miniature is one of only two portraits of the officer made during his lifetime.During the Federal Era (1780-1820), portraitists swarmed to Washington, D.C. Beerbohm's comment years later that everyone wants a portrait was certainly true during this complex period: statesmen, judges, military personnel, merchants, landowners-all were eager to be "remembered." Some portraitists made silhouettes or profiles. These last, although inexpensive, were "the rage," according to Charles Willson Peale, because at the time people believed an outline gave the most accurate indication of character.
Some profiles were cut, others drawn and used as a basis for engravings. Late in the century bronze profile medallions, like those by Truman Bartlett, became popular. The most well-known and accomplished profiler was Charles Balthazar Julien Févret de Saint-Mémin (1770-1852). During the years 1796 to 1810, Saint Mémin created in the United States almost one thousand engravings of important and "ordinary" citizens. When his orders in Washington began to diminish, he traveled throughout the southeast, gaining more orders. A refugee from the French Revolution, Saint-Mémin used a tracing device to capture an accurate profile, then filled in the drawing with details and created an engraving. He typically gave the drawing, engraved plate and 12 prints to each patron. Among his works of eminent citizens was his engraving of Gabriel Duvall (1752-1844), descendant of original settlers of Maryland, [figure 5] lawyer, jurist in Maryland, and an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court from 1811 to 1835. Framed in successive gold squares, the engraving portrays a distinguished jurist, firm in his principles.
Simpler profiles could be cut and the image itself pasted onto an oval background (a technique called cut-and-paste), or the hollow that remained after the cutting placed onto a contrasting backdrop (called hollow-cut). Silhouettists or profilers would then typically decorate the image with light colored gouache, suggesting perhaps a bonnet, scarf, wig, or cravat, and then apply gold decorations around the oval, matching the fancy frame. The silhouettes by the Philadelphia artist of an unknown woman and unknown man are examples of hollow-cut profiles in a decorated ensemble [figures 6, 7].
Other profilers, like Charles Peale Polk (1767-1822), a nephew of Charles Willson Peale, drew their works in graphite, occasionally enlarging them and reversing the direction the sitter faces with a chalk drawing, as did Polk with his drawing of an unknown woman that he turned into a larger, highly decorated profile. [figure 8]
For the affluent that could afford an oil portrait, (and, as Beerbohm would say, wanted to be made younger) the bust-size image was typically commissioned to mark a special time in the sitter's life. Whereas American artists like Charles Willson Peale and his family painted with a linear style that emphasized the particulars of expensive dress and hair fashioning, portraitists in Europe at the time worked with a loose, romantic style, often using thin glazes of delicate color that suggested their sitter's freedom of spirit. This exhibition demonstrates the difference with portraits by the American Sarah Miriam Peale and the Swiss artist Angelica Kauffmann (1741-1807).
Sarah Miriam Peale (1800-1885), daughter of Charles Willson Peale, in her Portrait of Anna Farmer Bower, 1822 [figure 9], used a hard-edged, carefully detailed style that emphasized the intricate lace and patterns of her sitter's costume and bonnet. In contrast, Kauffmann's imposing oil portrait circa 1790 of a woman who is believed to be Franciska Krasinska, Duchess of Courland (1742-1796) shows the European artist's sophisticated absorption of the soft-brushed, multi-layered style popular in London, where she lived in the 1760s and 1770s. The thin glazes Kauffmann used in the portrait are testimony of her admiration for the work of English portraitists Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough, who, with her, were members of the English Royal Academy. And indeed, the Duchess was much older than Kauffmann suggests in the portrait [figure 10].
Kauffmann's miniatures are less well known, but two works painted in her style in the collection of the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts reveal European copyists' admiration of her bright colors and gentle touch-Portrait of a Gentleman and Portrait of a Lady. With signatures that imitate Kauffmann's, such decorative miniatures were bought by American tourists in the 1880s as souvenirs on their Grand Tour of Europe. Painted on ivory and possibly over a photograph, these may be copies of portraits by Kauffmann or painted directly over a photograph of the tourist patrons. Because the man and woman are facing each other, they are perhaps a married couple celebrating their honeymoon. In addition, these keepsakes were possibly painted in Rome, a must-see stop on the Grand Tour, and where the revered Kauffmann had settled after her stay in England.
About the Author
Dr. Elizabeth Johns, PhD, is professor emerita in Art History, University of Pennsylvania.
(above Peale, Anna Claypoole (American, 1791-1878), A Lady, 1825, watercolor on ivory, 4 x 3". Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, gift of Dr. W. Lehman Guyton, 2009)
(above: Unidentified artist (American), Portrait Miniature of Major Samuel Ringgold, early 1820s, watercolor on ivory, 3 ? x 2". Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, Museum Purchase, 2000)
Works in the exhibition:
Keepsakes of the Beloved: Portrait Miniatures and Profiles 1790 to 1840 is sponsored by the Agnita M. Schreiber Stine Foundation
Resource Library editor's note
The above essay was reprinted in Resource Library on February 4, 2011 with permission of the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, which was granted to TFAO on February 4, 2011.
Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Jennifer Chapman Smith, Assistant Curator, Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.
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